Arts

A Lit Fest in Lockdown: How the Newark Book Festival team dealt creatively with COVID-19

This year, Sara Bullimore , artistic director of Newark Book Festival, was able to attend the events she organised.  ‘That never happens,’ she says. ‘I’m normally running from one venue to the next to check everyone’s ok. This time, though my fingers were typing across two computers and a phone, I was able to watch the events. I […]

This year, Sara Bullimore , artistic director of Newark Book Festival, was able to attend the events she organised. 

‘That never happens,’ she says. ‘I’m normally running from one venue to the next to check everyone’s ok. This time, though my fingers were typing across two computers and a phone, I was able to watch the events. I loved it! It was great to chat to the audiences too!’ 

Like so many events across the globe, this year’s Newark Book Festival was held remotely, relying on the tech wizardry of volunteers and acquaintances to ensure events could go ahead. 

‘We knew the worst possible scenario was no 2020 festival. We’d need more funding to go ahead but cancelling the whole thing would mean no future for the Festival at all.’ 

Sara Bullimore – Artistic Director, Newark Book Festival

When lockdown was announced at the end of March, Sara and her Festival volunteers had managed to raise 75% of the budget needed to organise the festival. The festival takes place in July every year, scheduled this time for the 9th to the 12th, so they had three more months of fundraising to go. But the 2020 plans were big. One of the main venues, The Palace Theatre, was celebrating its 100th birthday. Sara had planned a host of centenary-themed events in keeping with the celebrations, including an event with bestselling crime author Sophie Hannah to mark a hundred years since the publication of Agatha Christie’s first novel and a Brontë talk to celebrate Anne Brontë’s 200th birthday. 

With lockdown looming, it seemed possible these anniversaries would go unacknowledged. .

Newark Book Festival is well-embedded within its town. The venues, from the velvet-curtained Palace Theatre to the high-ceilinged town hall, the quaint little tea shops and cosy library, have always provided a welcoming backdrop to events. Though people travel to the festival from far and wide, it never loses its sense of community, the idea that this is a place where you come and bump into neighbours and friends. Queuing to get your book signed by some illustrious literary figure, you normally bump into old teachers, or hairdressers, or people you know from last year. As a festival that has worked so hard to get Newark on the literary map, simply taking events and sticking them online could lose something integral, some essential quality, that makes the festival what it is. 

‘We were so lucky we already knew the ladies at I am In Print,’ says Sara. ‘They run remote webinars for writing communities. As soon as it became clear what was going on, we reached out to them and started going over the logistics. I also spoke to a videographer too.’ 

But the rescheduling wasn’t easy. Some of the venues were shut, staff at sites and publishers were furloughed, and some contacts had even contracted the virus and were unable to answer emails. Marketing was also difficult. Normally, Sara prints off leaflets and hand-delivers them to venues. Local people coming to a local event. But an online festival demanded a totally different approach.

Though the scheduling of the festival in July was in some ways a boon – more time for planning, chance to adapt to the Lockdown rules – in other ways, it made life more complicated. In July, things were beginning to open up for the first time in months. Hairdressers, shops, even pubs were opening their doors for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic.  

‘We knew then we’d be competing for people’s attention,’ Sara says. ‘We knew people would want to visit family, get their hair cut, go out for the first time. Completely understandable of course, but selling tickets for online events in this sort of half-lockdown was much more difficult than in total lockdown, when everyone’s at home!’ 

But the show went ahead and people did buy tickets. The schedule was packed with events, including:

  • a series of writing workshops with Leanne Moden
  • a ‘Crime Through the Ages’ panel with Nick Quantrill, Rod Reynolds, Mick Finlay & Frances Brody
  •  a ‘Bronte 200’ talk with Lauren Livesey from the Brontë Parsonage, and writers Rowan Coleman and Lucy Powrie
  • an interview with best-selling historical thriller writer Kate Mosse
  • Emily Brand’s ‘The Fall of the House of Byron’ talk
  • Sophie Hannah’s ‘Agatha, Poirot & Me’ talk
  • a Gothic Fiction Panel with Rhiannon Ward, Francine Toon, and Jess Kidd
  • Children’s author Claire Barker’s ‘Picklewitch & Jack’ talk 
  • A ‘Dressed for War’ talk with Julie Summers
  • An interview with ‘Lancelot’ author Giles Kristian
The Festival social media accounts were regularly updated.

And for the first few minutes of each event, the chat box at the side of the screen was alive with greetings. Hi Jan. Hi Pete. Hi Diane. How’s the family? Fine thanks. You? Kate Mosse was talking and people were saying hello. They were staying hello to Kate Mosse but also to each other. You couldn’t tap someone’s shoulder in a signing queue but you could say hello in a chat box.

 ‘We definitely missed running something very local and reaching local communities,’ says Sara, ‘but we’re going to compensate for this in the future when we’re able. But, yes, loads of really good things came out of the remote festival. Our audiences were wide-ranging – we had old Festival Friends but we also had people tuning in from all over the UK. We also had guests from Canada, Washington, Vancouver, Germany, Barcelona and Brussels. One lovely lady in Canada donated tickets to Newark locals unable to buy tickets themselves.’ 

Sara makes a point of thanking Elane and Sarah from I am in Print for their stellar work packing nine events into two days and hosting every single author webinar. Without them, the festival could never have taken place. The official Festival Bookseller, The Bookcase in Lowdham was also essential, agreeing to run book festival offers unto the 27th July. 

‘All of our Festival Friends, funders, sponsors and partners were incredibly supportive,’ says Sara. ‘They gave us hope and confidence. Our authors were simply outstanding in creating and delivering in new circumstances. They had to undergo tech tests (sometimes many) before the event and were really gracious, happy to do what needed to be done.’  

Sara Bullimore, Artistic Director of Newark Book Festival

And the acts themselves were delighted to take part. After chairing the Crime Fiction Webinar, crime writer and Newark Book Festival alumnus, Nick Quantrill, said the festival was very different but still very enjoyable. 

‘I missed seeing the town and old friends in person,’ Nick says, ‘but I love the fact the event was opened up to a wider audience around the country. I think we’ll see a mix of real-world events and online in the future.’

Rhiannon Ward, author and chair of the Festival’s 2020 Gothic Panel, praised the hard work of festival volunteers and staff. 

‘Sara and her team at Newark Book Festival did an amazing job getting the event online supported by I Am Print,’ she says. ‘The gothic panel was wonderful to chair and was followed by insightful and interesting questions. Thank you to everyone for their hard work.’ 

Children’s author Claire Barker, described the festival cohort as a ‘dream team’; ‘Passionate, professional, with excellent communication skills,’ says Claire, ‘I loved working with you all.’ 

Putting on your own remote book event in 2020? Here are Sara’s top tips for planning in a pandemic: 

  1. Make sure you have the absolute best tech in place. You can’t fake a good connection. 
  2. Look at what is happening in the UK culturally. Is there anything you’re doing that could tie in? 
  3. Create a buzz any way you can. Reach out to authors to get signed editions. Find some way to make what you’re doing exclusive. 
  4. Help stores general sales. There’s no book festival without selling books. Events are a great way of hooking people’s interest. They’re never more likely to buy a book than after just meeting an author, even if it is through a screen. Make sure there’s an easy, reliable way to get from book events to book-buying. 
  5. Leave plenty of time and be prepared to work very, very hard!

Many of the book festival’s extra fundraising activities had to be put on hold as a result of the pandemic. 2021 is going to be a real challenge for the festival. The only two members of staff will only be financially supported until September. With the new phases of the festival there are plans to still hold events in February. To ensure these events go ahead and the festival survives into the future, the festival is going to need help. 

You can make a single donation by emailing the team or contacting them through the festival website (www.newarkbookfestival.org.uk) or become a Festival Friend for only £15 a year. Friend status entitles you to several special privileges – to find out more and sign up, visit the festival website! 


About the author

Ellen Lavelle is a post-graduate alumni of The University of Warwick’s Writing Programme. An aspiring novelist and screenwriter, she has worked with The Young Journalist Academy since the age of fourteen, writing articles and making short films for their website. She’s currently working on a novel. She interviews authors for her blog and you can follow her @ellenrlavelle on Twitter.

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